The Step Back: The Skiles the limit

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Anyone who grew up on the NBA in the 1990s knows what a powerhouse the Orlando Magic were back then.

After joining the league in 1989 as an expansion team, they quickly rose to prominence, drafting Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 before acquiring the draft rights to Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway the following year. Along with the likes of Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the duo led the franchise to the NBA Finals in 1995 before disbanding when O’Neal signed with the Los Angeles Lakers the following summer.

But before any of the members of that core group were assembled, there was Scott Skiles.

Skiles was among the first players Orlando selected as part of the 1989 NBA expansion draft. Along with former fifth overall pick Sidney Green, future Magic general manager Otis Smith and aging All-Star Reggie Theus, he became one of the first players to ever don the now legendary pinstripes of the newly established franchise. And he quickly became one of the best, averaging 17.2 points and 8.4 assists during the 1990-91 season, his second with the team.

That particular season went down in Magic lore thanks to Skiles, as he set a new NBA record for assists in a single game, notching 30 against the Denver Nuggets.

It was a scintillating performance, punctuated by the kind of passing you’d have expected to see from Magic Johnson. But Skiles had that in his arsenal and took advantage of an opponent that gave up a league-worst 130.8 points a night.

As he told John Denton back in 2015: “I knew absolutely going in that it was going to be a high assist game as long as we could make shots. You never know sometimes if that’s going to happen, but we had so many fast breaks and (Denver) just literally would in-bound the ball, take three or four dribbles and then shoot a three for a good portion of the game. If they had been making them then we’d be taking the ball out of the net and the whole thing doesn’t happen.’’

The performance rightly comes with an asterisk beside it, thanks to the run and gun style of that Denver team coached by Paul Westhead. But it’s important to note that Skiles’ mark still stands today. And that it was made in an era dominated by point guards like Johnson, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Mark Price, Mark Jackson and Tim Hardaway.

Of those players, Stockton came closest to breaking Skiles’ record when he bagged 28 assists in 1991. The only other player to have even come close is Rajon Rondo, who had a 25-assist game in 2017 with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Unfortunately, it was something of a high point of Skiles’ career. He remained the Magic’s starting point guard until the 1993-94 season, when he found himself relegated to the bench behind the newly drafted Penny Hardaway. That year Skiles played in all 82 games but only started 46, logging 9.9 points and 6.1 assists per game as the Magic went on to win 50 games and make a franchise-first playoff appearance.

Skiles then became a casualty of the team’s success as he was sent to the then Washington Bullets to free up the cap space the Magic used to sign veteran forward Horace Grant. While Grant was an integral part of the team that went to the Finals a couple of years later, Skiles’ leadership was sorely missed as Orlando got swept by a more experienced Houston Rockets team.

A year later the Magic blew the opportunity to re-sign O’Neal and went into freefall, an error they didn’t truly recover from until Dwight Howard made them relevant again in 2007. Skiles, meanwhile, spent a season with the Bullets before retiring the following year after making just nine appearances as a Philadelphia 76er.

He became a coach in 1997 and spent time as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns before taking the head coach role there. He then spent time in Chicago and Milwaukee before becoming head coach of the Magic in 2015. After a year in the role he resigned, claiming he was “not the right head coach for this team”.

Skiles hasn’t returned to coaching since.